Some addiction counselors recommend getting a pet after going through treatment (for alcoholism, eating disorders, depression) before you start dating. The thought being that first you learn how to tend to an animal that has a body and feelings, isn’t ashamed of them, doesn’t abandon them, and lets you know when you do (abandon them). It’s a metaphor for self-care, responsibility, and tending: tending to recovery, tending to relationship, tending to health.
Plants are harder. They don’t bark at you, jump on you, or snuggle up to you. They don’t beg for food or scratch on the door. They just sit there, in their pot, very quietly, thriving. Or not thriving. For someone with a black thumb, it’s hard to tell.
This orchid plant has been in my office for two years. It has never bloomed until this past week.
At one point it had sticky gunk covering its leaves and I thought it might die. Orchids are particularly challenging. With orchids, there are long periods of just sitting there, mostly looking ok, but not blooming. For two years, I watered it. Just a little, because I have heard they don’t like being flooded. Sometimes I put it on the sunlit windowsill, but not for very long, as I have heard that they don’t like too much light, either. As one gardening site states:
“Insufficient light results in poor flowering. However, too much light can lead to leaf scorch.” *
Well, I don’t know what leaf scorch is, but I certainly don’t want that for my orchid! And I certainly don’t want my clients coming into an office with a leaf-scorched plant! That would not represent hopefulness or health in the recovery process!
Orchids are what some might call “high maintenance” plants. They require very specific conditions or they will not flourish. “High maintenance” is not always a description that is welcomed. I prefer sensitive. Like orchids, many recovering people have orchid-like temperaments: sensitive and requiring certain conditions to flourish. Without these conditions, they may “go dormant” (depression) or become sick (eating disordered, addicted) in order to survive.
Many of my clients are what might be characterized as “orchids.” (No, not all of them, and everyone has some degree of orchid-ness and dandelion-ness in them). Orchids are a sensitive lot. They need just the right amount of light and water or they don’t bloom. They’re often the ones, as children, that stay on the edge of the playground until the conditions are exactly right for them to jump in and play. I often use this analogy with my clients: If you go to a playground and one person runs right to the slide to go down it, and one person pauses before deciding where they would most feel comfortable playing, who is better? They often either look at me puzzled, or give me an exasperated:
“Well obviously, neither, on the playground. But real life isn’t like that, Dr. Linda. I should be able to go right to the slide (share confidently in class, jump right into a leadership role at a new job, know whether I am going to marry this person on a first date, be Supermom the day after labor and delivery).”
When I ask “Why?,” the answer that comes is:
“Because other people do.”
To which I respond “Hmmm…who are these ‘other people’ and did you do any double-blind research studies before comparing and despairing?”
Orchids are sensitive to their conditions and often “slow to warm up” in temperament. Dandelions, however, bloom in many different kinds of environments. Dandelions go right to the playground slide. Or the swings. Or hang out with their orchid friend in the quiet zone of the playground. They can grow in soil full of organic compost or they can thrive in dirt under a concrete sidewalk. If you suggest:
“Let’s eat here (Pizza, Bar-on-the Corner, 5-Star Restaurant),”
a dandelion will say:
If you suggest:
“Let’s eat here (Pizza, Bar-on-the Corner, 5-Star Restaurant),”
an orchid will say:
“Do they have gluten-free or vegetarian options, how loud is it, have the chickens been free-ranging?” (Except usually they won’t say this because they are worried about being too “high maintenance,” so they’ll go to the pizza place and get a stomach/headache from the noise, inability to digest the food, and concern about if the chicken was ranging free.)
You might be thinking “But those ARE the high maintenance people. That’s Sally in When Harry Met Sally when she takes ten minutes to order a sandwich.”
To which I would reply:
No, those are the people who are going to be deeply affected by the food they ingest, the company they keep, and their external environment. Those are the canaries in the mineshaft. Coal miners they used to take a canary with them into the mine because, when the canary died, they knew the air was toxic and they needed to get out. The sensitivity of the canary was their awareness of their own mortality. Canaries (Orchids) can offer wisdom as to how to honor sensitivity and diversity.
IF you are an orchid, your work is to stop pathologizing your sensitivity. Get yourself to an environment where you can thrive. Surround yourself with people who embrace your sensitivity. Give yourself the right amount of water and sunlight. Visit nature. Make art, music, or write. If you are an introvert, create quiet introversion recovery time in your schedule. If you have learned how to tend to your own sensitivities, then be of service advocating for other orchids and educate the dandelions. Many (but not all) dandelions are open to helping support orchids. Many (but not all) orchids are open to helping support dandelions. They can thrive together in the right conditions.
If you are an orchid, take very good care of yourself, even when you don’t see immediate results. Remember it took my orchid two years before it trusted me enough to bloom. But, in the famous words of Anais Nin:
“the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”
[i] I borrowed the metaphor of orchids and dandelions from an esteemed colleague, Vivette Glover, who is a British professor of Perinatal PsychoBiology at Imperial College of London. Dr. Glover cites the article below as one that explores the “Orchid/Dandelion hypothesis.” This hypothesis explores how twins with short 5-HTT (“orchid”) alleles have different environmental susceptibility to depression.
Conely, Dalton, Rauscher, Emily, and Siegal, Mark L., “Beyond orchids and dandelions: Testing the 5HTT ‘risky’ allele for evidence of phenotypic capacitance and frequency dependent selection” Biodemography Soc Biot. 2013; 59(1): 37-56.
[ii] Part of this post originally appeared on Recovery warriors blog https://www.recoverywarriors.com/lessons-recovery-life-little-one/ “Lessons About Recovery and Life I’ve Learned From My Little One,” November 8, 2016